Migrants (final part)

It’s cold, I feel the wind sneak between my scarf and the collar of my coat and in a thousandth of a second reach my whole body. The icy air sends a shiver down my spine. It’s late, I’ve been waiting for you for at least ten minutes. I decide to call you, even if it means having to take my hand out of my coat pocket to get my phone, which is in my bag. The gesture costs me the exposure of my limb to the cold air. This only adds to my nervousness. I search through the latest calls, your name is the first on the list. I call you. The phone keeps ringing off the hook. On the fifth ring, you finally answer.
On my way” you say quickly and hang up. I realize you were sleeping. So it will take you a couple of minutes to get ready, added to the fifteen minutes to get here. Time I’ll have to spend sitting, in the cold, on a bench in front of the car park of the company I work for. If only I had a driving licence, if only I had been able to become an independent woman all these years in Italy.
Tisha kan e hajrit“, I wouldn’t have had to wait for you in the evening, cold, sweaty, after spending five hours cleaning the offices and bathrooms of the company. But no, in Italy, the only goal I managed to achieve has been to become a cleaning lady. All I did was clean. First the houses of our kids’ friends, then those of even richer people, where I understood the meaning of the verb “to live” and then the leap, the last step. A real contract, no more black money left in an envelope over the kitchen table. Now I’m also paying retirement contributions. A legal work contract, after 25 years in Italy.
They say it’s never too late. They also say that money doesn’t make you happy. They should experience what it’s like to live without it and spend a live breaking the back to earn just enough to survive. I think back to what my dreams were when we arrived here. I even thought I would complete the exams I had left and graduate. How naive of me. But how did I think I could accomplish so much?

I check my phone again and only five minutes have passed. I’m cold, hungry and exhausted. I just want to take a hot shower and go to sleep. My mind takes me back to the first days in Italy, I can’t get away from those memories. I think back to the happiness of being able to have our own intimacy. To the irrepressible joy of knowing that our children would study here and become someone. I wonder why a person builds so many expectations based solely on imagination. I wonder why, after Blerim, we decided to have two more kids. Didn’t we think about how much money we would need to raise them? How many things they would ask of us while they were growing up?
We didn’t think about anything, we were like under the effects of some drug. We were high on hope. We were not considering the reality of things. Being foreigners, not knowing the language and not having any friend. Our daily lives would be affected by all of this, and we would pay dearly for it. Hope had blinded us. Your salary was barely enough, then I started cleaning and with those pennies I could at least pay for the groceries. That way we could save some money to enjoy the summers in Kosovo. The only place we could afford to go. The only place we wanted to go. Where for years we carried on this narrative of the comfortable life and the immense possibilities that a country like Italy gave us. We worked the worst jobs, came home exhausted, and our daily routine was cadenced by counting down the months until summer, when we would return. We should have told the truth. We should have been proud of ourselves, of what we were doing. We had decided to throw our lives away, to break our backs, to clean up the shit of the Italians, to do the jobs they didn’t want to do, solely and exclusively to give our children a better future. But all this we did not tell anyone, we hid it, as a person tries to cover and hide a physical defect in the eyes of others. We were ashamed of ourselves, but we shouldn’t have been. We should have walked around with a sign above our heads that read in big letters, “I’m cleaning shit up to give my kids a better future“.

We had to be proud of it and hold our heads up. Everyone in Kosovo was telling us that we were safe, that we were living the good life.
Jeni pshtu, u knaqt nat Itali.
We had to show that we made money, and so we gave it away to help others. Or rather, you were giving it away to your brothers. You were building them houses, while we, every summer, had to go and sleep over at their place. Twenty-five years in Italy and we managed, with difficulty, to buy a miserable flat in Kosovo. You had to borrow money from your brothers, and then you had to give it back. You, on the other hand, had given it to them for free. Not only that, but you never changed in all these years, and it ended as I imagined. It ended up that after your brothers, even your children stepped on your toes. Albina got married to an Italian. You told her you would never let her in the house again, and she never came back. Her last words to you are a nightmare that haunts me every day.

If your only goal was for us to get married to an Albanian, you could have easily stayed in Kosovo. There was no need to come to Italy. A lifetime telling us that you did it to give us a better future, and then the only thing you really care about is the nationality of our partner. You should have stayed in Kosovo, we all would have been happier.

After Albina, it was Blerim who left home. He went to study in Rome, tried to get as far away from us as possible and succeeded. Valon, on the other hand, still lives here, but we hardly see him. He comes home late from work and always spends the weekend with his friends. At least that’s what he says, but I’m sure he has a girlfriend, most likely Italian.

I hear the sound of a car, it’s you. I struggle to get up. As I get upright, I feel an even stronger tremor in my legs and twinges in my lower back. I’m ruined, my body is useless. I open the door, sit down and fasten my seatbelt. You’re listening to a folk music CD at a medium-high volume, and I’m already annoyed.
A je lodh?” You ask me in a cold, detached, disinterested tone.
Jo, jo,” I reply, looking out the window to my right, trying to increase the distance between us as much as possible. As you travel crudely and at an excessively high speed down the road toward home, a song sung with ciftelijat starts up. The pitch of the singers’ voices is very high, the noise they create is inexplicable, and I have the feeling that my head could explode at any moment. I don’t say anything, I don’t have the strength to argue. I would like you to turn the volume down, I would like you to get there on your own, I would like you to remember how many times I have told you that I don’t like these songs and that the high-volume bothers me. But you don’t get it, you’ve never got anything, on your own. You always have to be reminded, how and when to do things. And I don’t have the will or the strength any more. I close my eyes and try to isolate myself, but the attempt proves impossible.

After an endless ride we finally arrive home. I open the door, we get in the elevator and spend the four floors of the ascent in religious silence. You look at your phone, while I stare at myself in the mirror. I am fifty-two years old, but look at least ten years older. We get to our floor, I anticipate you getting outside the elevator. I open the door and head for the kitchen, checking to see if you’ve eaten. I see everything in order, and it drives me crazy.
You haven’t eaten?” I ask, yelling.
You reach the kitchen with all the calm in the world. As you keep your gaze on your phone, you tell me to make two eggs, that you’ll eat them with some cheese. Then you sit down at the table, as if it were the most normal thing in the world. You don’t even make an effort to grab a tissue or cutlery. You make yourself comfortable and wait for me to serve you, as you have done all these years, as I have agreed to do since the day I agreed to become your wife. I stare at the oven and try to keep my cool, even though the only thing I want to do is turn around and throw something at you. Now I also have to make you dinner, because you are unable to do anything in this blessed house.

I take the pan, open the bottle of oil and pour an excessive amount, with all the nervousness I have on me. Then I immediately break the eggs and throw them into the pan, without waiting for the oil to be hot. I stay in that position, staring at the pan, while you turn on the television and don’t notice anything. I would like to scream at you, that this is the last time, that from my hands you will not eat anything more, but I keep the toad inside. I cannot ruin the plan if I want it to work out. In the meantime, the oil has heated up, and the eggs are starting to cook. I watch them impatiently, hoping to speed up the process. After a few minutes I remove them from the pan, even though they’re not exactly ready, but you won’t notice anyway. I throw salt on them with a disinterested motion, not caring where the salt will end up, and place them on a too-small plate. I hand it to you and move in the opposite direction before you’ve grabbed it properly. For a second I’m afraid it might fall off, but it doesn’t.

I walk down the hallway to the bedroom to get my pyjamas. I encounter photos of what has been our family. One photo, the largest one, catches my eye. Us on the couch, a few months after Valon was born. You’re holding the little one in your arms, Albina sitting on my lap wearing her favourite dress, white with red roses, and Blerim, all proudly wearing the Inter jersey, between us. We laugh, we are happy. It seems like an eternity ago.
When did we stop being happy?
When did we realize that we no longer had any hope of realizing our dreams?
When did we stop fighting?
An aura of disappointment and sadness takes over my mind. I reach the bedroom, grab my pyjamas under my pillow, and take the reverse route to the bathroom. I walk faster, bringing my gaze to the faded white of the walls to avoid running into more photos of our past, full of dreams and hopes. I get into the bathroom and close the door with a hasty gesture. Take off my clothes, catapult myself into the shower and finally experience the first lovely feeling of the day. The warm water on my temple is like heaven. I stay like this for a couple of minutes, before my mind takes me back to tomorrow’s plan. I will leave. I’ll leave the divorce papers for you to sign on the kitchen table. I don’t know how you’ll react, I don’t know how this news will affect you. You’ll probably go looking for me in Kosovo, but you won’t find me. I don’t know what my destination will be either. I have booked a cab for tomorrow morning at 10am, when you will be at work. I will ask him to take me to the airport. There I will buy a ticket for the first available flight. You will never find me again.

I take the shampoo, pour it on my right hand and then start spreading it on my hair. I start at the forehead and work my way to the back of my head. Like this, in repetition, for a lot of times. Then I let the water run again, close my eyes and let it remove the shampoo from my head, without me having to use my hands, which in the meantime I have clasped one to the other. The foam covers my face and mixes with tears. I squeeze my fingers tighter and tighter, and the crying becomes even more powerful. I feel the beats of my heart increase dramatically, on my face I no longer feel the foam, but only the tears. I don’t have the strength to remain standing and so, leaning against the wall – in a slow and passive way – I let myself slide down. I continue to cry and keep my hands clenched. Now the water hits me at shoulder height. I keep my eyes closed and wonder how we made it this far. We wanted to live two lives, one in Italy and one in Kosovo. We ended up not being able to live even one of them. Furthermore, we lost our children, our marriage and even our country. We remained so anchored to the idea we had of it, that even today we keep looking for it, but the country we left behind does not exist any more. Everything has changed, and the people have changed too. Last summer you spent the whole trip complaining because no one had invited you for a proper dinner, because your brothers had only visited once, and your nephews not even once. I stayed silent the whole time, realizing that your mind and heart are still there, when we left, 25 years ago.

I let the water continue to fall on my body, not daring to open my eyes. For a moment, I hope that by opening them, everything could go back to when we were happy and taking pictures all together. To when we were made of hope. But I am aware that now I have to think about my own happiness. The kids are independent, and I don’t want to keep being your servant. Maybe I can be happy alone, in another country. Maybe it will be the right time. I will try to do as Pirandello had written. I’ll leave, I’ll escape and I’ll try to live a new life, a life that is only mine, to live for real. If nothing else, I will still have my books from Italy. The books that our kids began to read and bring into the house when they were young. They tried to show us the way, but we were only interested in them becoming like us. That they marry someone like us. So we wouldn’t have to be ashamed in the eyes of our relatives. They tried, to get us to read them. With me, they succeeded, of course. Hungry as I have always been for literature. Discovering Italian literature has been the oxygen that has allowed me to breathe all these years. To you, on the other hand, those books have always bothered you. Albina was probably right, we should have stayed in Kosovo, if our goal was only to create our own copies. But that was not the initial intent. We had decided to come here to be happy, to create a family, something only ours, something different from what we were leaving behind, something that everyone would envy us. Those people from whom we couldn’t wait to get away, for whom we then spent our summers always in the same place, and for whom we forgot what our intentions were. Their possible judgement has conditioned our lives and only now, after 25 years, have we realized that they never gave a damn about us. They were there for us as long as we had money to give away. When we ran out, they forgot about us. We couldn’t get anything done all these years. We destroyed everything we could, we lost everything we could, we failed. Maybe, looking back, in the end we were the best example for our children. The example not to be followed. Look at what we did and do the opposite.

Gezim Qadraku

Migrants (2° part)

It’s hot. The month of July has brought with it high temperatures and mugginess with the force of a tornado. Blerim and Valon are at home. Blerim, until a week ago, used to spend his days at its school camp. Then, because of the problem with the car’s control unit and how much it costs to repair it, he couldn’t go any more. We don’t have money. And now that they both have to spend an entire summer day at home, they look like two wild animals forced into a cage. They growl at each other, constantly fighting. As I go to break them up, they resume fighting a few minutes later. After a while, I give up and let one of them wear the other down. Although sometimes I feel like they have an endless amount of energy and desire to annoy each other. Valon is always complaining that Blerim won’t let him play with the console. Every time, he comes crying to me and asks me to buy him a joystick. It costs 50 euros, the damn thing.

The only moment of the day they can breathe is after 4pm, when I can finally take them to the park. I have to work during the day. I have to clean wealthy people’s houses every day. From 9 to 11:30 am and then from 2 to 4 pm. Today is Thursday, I have to go to the Brambilla’s. I always take the kids with me, they love that flat. And Mr. Luciano told me that they can use the console. He has two joysticks, so they don’t have to fight, and can play together.

It’s 13:35 already. I finish the dishes in a hurry. While I’m in the kitchen, I yell at the kids to get ready. Blerim replies, shouting, “WE ARE READY”. I quickly dry my hands and with the same frequency of movement I go to my bedroom. I’m behind schedule. We should be on our way by now. The Brambilla’s apartment is about half an hour away from ours. I get dressed as quickly as I can, go back to the kitchen to check if I left any of the burners on, grab my bag and go to call the kids.

They are watching The Simpsons.
“Come on kids!”
“Mom, but the episode isn’t over yet,” Blerim tells me, as he doesn’t take his eyes off the television.
“BLERIM, SHPEJT,” I yell at him. (BLERIM, QUICK)
He realizes that he has to turn off the television immediately. Valon is already in the hallway, he always understands without having to repeat anything to him. We get out, and the heat seems to double. On that stretch of Via Piave there isn’t a thread of shade. We walk for about ten minutes under the scorching sun. I hold Valon’s hand, while Blerim walks in front of us. We proceed in religious silence, as if not to waste the energy that the torrid heat tries to suck out of us at every step we take. The town seems to be in hibernation. Not a soul is heard around. It’s the hottest time of the day, and in fact the smartest thing to do would be to stay indoors. But I have to clean the houses of the Italians, and I don’t have a car licence. But even if I did, even if I could drive, we still couldn’t afford a car. I tell myself that every time I think about it. That it would be useless. That it’s okay.

We arrive at Mr. Luciano’s apartment at 2:05pm. I am late, but less than I thought. In an hour and fifty-five minutes I have to do the kitchen, the living room and the bathroom. At 4 p.m. I have to get the hell out of this place. I can’t stay longer. Either Mr. Luciano or Mrs. Claudia might come home and the last thing they want to find is me cleaning up. The kids immediately go into the living room and start playing. I head to the kitchen, where there are still the leftovers of last night’s dinner. They don’t get tired of doing anything. I imagine them finishing their meal and getting up to go into the living room, enjoying some movies, while they love each other and enjoy this dream life. They are recently married, both over forty years old. He is an insurance agent, she is a university professor. They both work in Milan, spending most of the day there. They bought an apartment outside Milan because they prefer a small, quiet town. They have no children and give me the idea that they never will. All this money, this wealth, who knows who they will leave it to. What a waste of a life without children, I tell myself every time I get into this flat. The most important piece of a family is missing, and yet they seem happy as they are. On the kitchen table there are crumbs of bread, a slice of Bresaola and a bottle of red wine. They don’t even bother to put the wine in the fridge. On the note that they always leave on the table, there is the usual indication: “as usual”.

I look at the clock, it is 2:10 PM. I haven’t started yet, and I’m already tired. It’s too hot this time of year and the more I go on, the more I get the feeling that I won’t be able to keep cleaning so many places. I’ll have to leave some, but we need the money. It’s never enough. I close my eyes, clench my fists, take a deep breath, and try to push through. Ever since I stepped into the kitchen, I’ve had the feeling that the room smells like Bresaola. That slice, left there since last night, has filled the room with its aroma. I stare at it for an infinite amount of time. The amount of seconds my eyes remain on it is directly proportional to the increased desire to eat it. I shouldn’t, I keep telling myself. But nobody will notice it, I convince myself. Finally, I take it and with a quick gesture, caused by the fear that someone might see me, I kick it into my mouth. I chew brazenly. If someone were watching me, they would think that I haven’t eaten in days. I look like a wolf that has just managed to kill its prey, and after the effort of the chase finally manages to take its first bite. It’s damn good. As I chew it, and deep in my heart I hope that for some strange reason the slice can reproduce between my teeth and last forever, I realize the poor quality of food that we can afford every day. I eat the last piece of the slice and feel like I am reborn. I hear the children laughing with delight, I can sense that they are having fun, and this gives me the strength to start cleaning up.

I take the bottle of wine and I put it in the fridge. With the rag, I pull away the crumbs. I pick up the pace and continue like this, for an hour and fifty minutes. Without ever taking a break, not even to go to the bathroom. We need money, I tell myself. And then, in less than a month, we’re going to Kosovo. The children are thrilled. All they do is ask how many days are left. You seem happier this time of year, too. You’re looking forward to seeing your parents, and I’m looking forward to seeing Mom. I miss her. Every time summer comes around, I realize how much of a year it is without seeing a parent. Too long a time, exhausting. This should not be legal. During our last call, Mom said something that made me smile.
“If only there was a little camera in these phones, if only we could see each other when we talk.”

“Turn it off, we have to go, kids.”
“No mom, we have to finish the last game,” Blerim retorted, while Valon had already taken his hands off the joystick.
“BLERIM, TE LUTEM,” he forces me to raise my voice. (BLERIM, PLEASE)
“You’re taking us to the park, though.”
“Of course I’ll do. Come on, let’s go.”
Blerim’s elementary school park is only about ten minutes from the Brambilla’s apartment. The children walk ahead of me, holding hands and continuing to laugh. It moves me to see them so close. At a certain point, they stop and turn in sync towards me. They look at me smiling and signal me with their hand to approach quickly.
“Hajde mam,” Blerim says to me as he continues to hold Valon’s hand. (Come mam)
I walk up to them smiling, dropping to my knees as I feel like it’s Valon who wants to speak for both of them.
“Go ahead, ask him,” Blerim encourages him.
“Mom, when are we going to live in a house like Mr. Luciano’s too?”

It’s like a syringe piercing my heart. It goes in one side and comes out the other. I feel my knees buckle and I rest my hands on their shoulders to keep from falling. It’s not the request that hurts, but the smile and hope I see in their eyes. They really think something like this is possible. In their naivety, they are convinced that one day we could actually afford such an apartment. I tuck my head between theirs, squeeze their shoulders and move them toward me. I do this to hide my face and the tears that wet my eyes. I try to figure out when to open my mouth and speak, without them realizing I’m sobbing. I keep waiting, aware that the time isn’t right yet.
“When Mom?” Valon asks again.
“Soon rrushi i jem, soon,” I manage to tell him, stopping the tears for a couple of seconds and feeling like the worst mother on the face of the earth. We stay in that position for a few more minutes, while I stop crying and keep stroking their backs, and they hold me tight. Then I get up, and the physical pain adds to the emotional one. I feel the twinges in my back, the muscles in my calves hardening, and a weight that rests on my shoulders and tries to crush me into the ground.

We arrive at the park, the kids run to the swings. I see Luana sitting on the bench behind the swings and join her. She has not been doing well lately. She tells me how her fights with her husband have increased, how he comes home late at night. Many times he is drunk. She doesn’t tell me, but I’m convinced he also puts his hands on her.
“Hi Luana,” I greet her and immediately notice a different light in her eyes.
“Hi honey, how are you?” she asks me. I still don’t understand why she calls me that and not by my name, but I don’t feel like asking her, I feel ashamed. It must be a habit of Italian women, calling each other that way.
“Fine, thanks. A little tired. A lot work today. Are you okay?” I answer her mechanically. I still scan the words with some awe. After a day like this, I have the feeling that the Italian words – which I try to learn every day by listening to the television and the children talking to each other – vanish from my memory, dissolve in the air, evaporate. So I have to look for them, chase them, capture them, bring them back to me and try to make sense of them, putting them in the right order.
“I feel better, I have news for you.”
“How nice. Tell me!”
“I’ve decided to divorce my husband. I think it’s the best thing for me. I can’t go on like this any more…”
My attention remains anchored on that sentence. Luana keeps talking, moves her body towards me, and I assume she is telling me everything that happened. I don’t follow her any more though, I can’t. My brain is stuck on that initial sentence, on that verb. To divorce. My vision blurs, my attention vanishes completely, the only thing I can pick up is the relief in Luana’s eyes.

“But how did you get divorced?
How do you think that’s the best decision for you?
Why did you do it?” I want to ask her, but I keep looking at her eyes, at least to show her that I’m listening. She proceeds uninterrupted. I slowly manage to bring my attention back to what she is telling me. I realize that I have been silent for too long. I don’t want to imagine what kind of expression I have. So I abruptly interrupt her, look her straight in the eye and tell her I understand. That it couldn’t have been easy. She continues her story, but out of the corner of my eye I notice that Valon has fallen, and I immediately move towards him. I already know that he’s not hurt, because as I move in his direction, he’s already up, and he’s not even crying. I use this alibi to detach myself from Luana. I don’t want to hear her talk any more today. I reach Valon, check his wound, from which some blood is coming out. I take a wet wash cloth from my pocket and wipe off the dirt that has stuck to the skin.
“Don’t worry mom, it doesn’t hurt,” he tells me as he tries to pull away from me as quickly as possible and go back to playing with his friends. I let him go without saying anything.

“Everything’s fine. Just a bit of blood,” I tell Luana, as soon as I get back to her. She continues to tell me about her decision, repeats all the events that led her to make that choice. I am still lost in my thoughts, in the doubts that her divorce is putting in my marriage. What if one day we get divorced, too? I wonder, as I try to look into her eyes to show her some semblance of my interest. A shiver of fear runs down my spine. No, we don’t do those things. We are not like that, we are not like them. I repeat myself, convinced and proud. We don’t ruin the family in this way. Besides, what reason would we have to get divorced? I look at the kids, they are playing hide-and-seek. Blerim is counting, while Valon is hiding behind a tree with one of his friends.

The time passes faster than expected, and fortunately it’s already time to go home. I say bye to Luana and her children, Luca and Ada. We head home and I hold both Valon and Blerim by the hand. Those doubts haven’t left my head yet, that damned verb – divorce – keeps turning in my skull, exactly like a mosquito. It causes me the same annoyance, as I try to chase it away and after a few seconds I still feel its buzzing. I shake the children’s hands. Valon reciprocates the squeeze, as if he’s just waiting for this. Blerim, on the other hand, disengages and picks up the pace.

We arrive at the home. I tell the children to take a shower, make it quick, because you’ll be there soon, and I’ll start preparing dinner. I make pasta for the children, while for you, I heat up the gullash I made for lunch. I know you prefer it reheated, that’s why I always make it when you’re at work, so it’s perfect for dinner. That’s what I had heard your mom saying the first time I saw you eating it at your parents’ place. You were back from your usual endless day at the pazar. You’d gone out early in the morning to sell some peaches, but the excruciating heat had spoiled half of them, and you’d sold very few of the other half. Not only that, but you came home empty-handed, dry, tired, destroyed. I didn’t understand how your mother could think of reheating a dish she had prepared for lunch. But I could see the happiness in your eyes, when you sat down at the table and your mother came towards you holding the heated Gullash.
“Qe djali i jem, qysh t’pelqen tyje,” she said to you. (Here is my son, as you like it).

I heat the Gullash using the lowest possible flame, excited, hoping to be able to cause the same happiness in you that your mother was able to. I hear the children have finished and a few minutes later the bell rings. I immediately run to open the front door of the building, and then the door of the flat. I hear your heavy footsteps approaching the three floors of stairs. I try to sense your tiredness by calculating how long it takes you to get upstairs. You’re slower than usual, I gasp in awe. What if something happened to you? Maybe you hurt yourself at work? My heartbeats increase in intensity. It takes you forever to get to the front door. You look up from your phone, you look at me for a few seconds, your expression doesn’t change.
“Grua,” you greet me. (Wife)
“A je lodh Afrim?”, I ask, worried that something has happened to you. (Are you tired Afrim?)
“Jo, jo. Nuk pat shum pun sot,” you say to me while moving toward the door. (No, no. There wasn’t that much work today)
“A je mir?”, I ask you to make sure that you are really okay. (Are you okay?)
You look at me crookedly and don’t answer, not understanding why I asked. Then I tell you that I’m going to get your clothes, to take a shower, that dinner is almost ready.

I run to the room to get your clothes and immediately take them to the bathroom. You are standing and still looking at your phone.
“Qe teshat,” I say and hang them behind the door for you. (Here are the clothes)
I hear the children laughing in their room, meanwhile the water in the pot boils and I throw the pasta. The bell rings again, it’s Albina. She climbs the stairs in the blink of an eye. I immediately understand that her first English lesson must have gone well. The only one in the class to have been chosen for this extracurricular course. The teachers told me she has a talent for languages. My flower, my favorite rose. I wait for her with the door open, dressed in all the pride a mother can muster. She runs up to me with an endless smile.
“Hajde qika e jem”, I don’t have time to ask her, that she is already telling me everything. (Come my daughter)
She continues to speak at an inordinate speed and tone. I try to take the backpack off her shoulders, but it’s a challenge, because she keeps telling me to wait and stop for a second, that she has to tell me another detail of her day.

You finish your shower and come into the kitchen.
“Buka osht gati,” I say, even though you didn’t ask, afraid that you might think you have to wait a long time. (Dinner, it’s ready).
You sit down and start changing the channels on the television. I hear you huffing as I get the kids’ pasta sauce warmed up.
“These kids don’t even know how to ask their father if he’s tired,” you spit out of your mouth, as coldly as you can, staring at me as I heat the sauce.
I feel your gaze on me, even though I turn my back on you. I leave the sauce and walk towards the children. Albina is with the kids, and together with Valon are watching Blerim playing PlayStation.
“Daddy has arrived, did you hear him? Come and ask him if he’s tired. HURRY UP.”
Valon and Albina immediately leave the room.
“But you work too mom, he never asks if you’re tired,” Blerim tells me as he continues to stare at the TV. I pretend I didn’t hear him, even though I want to hug him tightly.
“Come Blerim, dinner is ready.”

The children sit down at the table. Albina is still excited about her first English lesson. You watch the news with a disinterested attitude. You have your phone beside your cutlery and seem to be waiting for a text or call. I wait for you to ask Albina how her day went, she too seems to be waiting for just that, but you say nothing. Maybe you forgot, I tell myself, trying to come up with an excuse. I pour the Gullash onto the plate and hand it to you.
“Gullash, qysh t’pelqen tyje,” I tell you, waiting for a reaction. (Gullash, the way you like it).
The only thing you do is raise your arms from the table so that I can put the plate down. You start eating without waiting for me to have served the children, without waiting for me to have sat down, too. The voice of the journalist, along with the clatter of cutlery, are the background to this silent dinner. I see the smiles still on the children’s faces, you’re eating the Gullash, and I have a feeling you’re enjoying it. All this is heartening. I tell myself that it’s just a day like this, that I shouldn’t give too much importance to certain things. That I’m just more tired than usual, and luckily the vacations are approaching. We’ll go to Kosovo, and I’ll see you smile for real. That smile full of life and joy that made me fall in love with you, that smile I haven’t seen for so long. And who knows, maybe the children are right to believe. Maybe we’ll make it, too, to have a house like Mr. Luciano’s, to live a life like that of the Italians. Maybe it’s not too late yet.

Gezim Qadraku

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Migrants (1° part)

The news has just finished. The war is the only constant in the half hour of news. Now all the attention is on Bosnia, especially after the declaration of independence. Things are getting awful and the images on TV are scaring me. Some people say that it is only a matter of months and war will break out in Kosovo, too. Others continue their lives as if nothing is happening. I sit on the chair by the door, after serving tea to your father, you, your brothers and their wives. Your mother walks into the living room and heads to the fireplace to change the wood. You look at her and ask her to sit down, because you have to say two words.
Po du mi fol dy fjalë.

You want to say something about the war, I think, as I stay in my seat quietly and try not to make eye contact with anyone. I stare at you and try to get your thoughts out, before you turn them into words. Your mother sits down, with a gesture that gives off insecurity. It seems that the mere fact that you want to say something out loud worries her enough to make her move in a totally different way than usual. Slow and laboured, unlike the speed and quickness of her daily movements. When she sits down, you begin your speech. You cross your hands, rest your elbows on your thighs, move forward, seek everyone’s eyes, and after clearing your throat, drop the bombshell.
I’ve decided to take them to Italy with me. I will leave with my wife and the baby.

I feel a tremendous explosion at the level of my sternum. A flush of heat takes over my body and concentrates in my head. I keep my eyes on you, no longer caring if anyone notices. I look for you, I search your pupils, but you look towards your parents. What do you mean we’re going to Italy? You didn’t come back to stay, did you? And why didn’t you tell me before announcing it to your family? What the hell is this all about?
I feel my legs trembling, the drops of sweat sliding quickly from my neck to the bottom of my back, and my thoughts immediately go to my parents. To Mom’s poor physical condition. To Dad’s struggle to find a job after being fired as a bus driver because he is Albanian and his decision to quit smoking because he could no longer afford it. To my brother Fadil, his precarious job and his wife, so young and unprepared for family life, who can’t be of any help to Mom. I think of them and how the hell am I going to tell them that I’m leaving for Italy. No, that you have decided that we are going to Italy. Without asking me, without wanting to know what I thought, if I agreed or not.

A strange and annoying silence covers the room, tension is present in everyone’s faces and I feel myself collapsing, helpless, without any strength to react, in the hole that has opened under my feet. I didn’t expect this from you. You hurt me. I thought you were different. I fell in love with you because you seemed so distant from the other Kosovar boys. You were so shy, caring and polite, I thought you were adopted, that you were from another culture. That respect you had for any woman and that courtship of yours that was so sensitive and respectful, I literally fell head over heels for you. And now? You’ve decided our future without telling me? Did you do it out of spite? Why do you hold me guilty of the fact that our son did not recognize you when you came back from Italy after 14 months. How did you think he would recognize you if he had never seen you? You left when he was a few days old and when you came back, the only thing he knew about you was the picture of you hugging him in the garden a few days after his birth. What could I do? Other than give him that picture to kiss before putting him to bed and tell him again that Daddy would be back very soon. Do you think I felt good when he refused to hug you? When he kept staying in your brother Muharrem’s arms? When he came to whisper in my ear that this man, referring to you, should have slept under the bed and not next to me? Don’t you think I felt myself dying inside at those moments?

Finally, your father decides to destroy the silence. He does so by blessing your decision.
Perhajr i koft.
He remains seated, looks you in the eye, and adds nothing else. He sends down a sip of tea and nearly finishes it by the drop. The room returns to silence and none of your brothers say anything. Then you, trying to find a confidence you don’t have, while the sweat from your armpits turns the color of your shirt from purple to black, try to explain the reason for that choice. Even though no one asked you to. An insecurity, yours, that has only amplified since you took me as your bride. I think back to your fear and awkwardness during our first few nights in bed. Months with no results, which began to turn some people’s noses up. I could already hear the words of your mother and my sisters-in-law. Almost as if they hoped I wouldn’t be able to give you even one child. And then, finally, after a year and a half of anguish and fear, I got pregnant. A boy, thank God. That alone allowed me to be seen as a human being worthy of some attention.

I remain focused on your fears. The terror in confronting your family members. The inability to counter your father’s words, to not ask your siblings to follow you to work while you tear yourself apart for the whole family. For the first time, I wonder what kind of father you will be. I wonder how you will deal with our little one. Maybe you’ll be afraid of him, too. Maybe you’ll let your son walk all over you, too. I stop listening to you and think of you, your brothers, your father, your family. You told me that you were poor, that you had nothing, that you had recently fixed the house and that you still had a lot of debts, taken to be able to afford to organize the weddings of all the brothers. I watch you, as you fearfully try to say the best words that your brothers and father would expect from you, but you don’t realize that they have stopped caring about you for who knows how long now. I knew right away that in this house you were the only one trying to do something. You told me you were poor, but not that you were dirtbags. Not that you didn’t want to work the land, and that you found the most unthinkable excuses not to. You are not even capable of being proper country people. We’re all “katundar,” but my father and his brothers, with organization and sacrifice, built four houses. You, on the other hand? Yet there are so many of you males and all in good health that each of you should be living in your own home. Instead, here we are, crammed into this temporary house, still unfinished, with only one room available for each couple.

I could tell right away, the first night, what kind of trouble I had got myself into. But I agreed to stay. I stayed because I love you, regardless of your poverty. And now you do this to me? Just like that, without the slightest respect, in front of everyone? Why should I follow you to Italy and not go back to my parents? I’m beginning to think that those characteristics of yours that I liked so much are only the result of your weak character. And I thought you could be a different Albanian man. One of those who doesn’t need to scold his woman in front of the guests, as everyone does.
Grua do this, do that. Sorry, but my Grua is slow. Grua bring me a cup of water. Grua there isn’t enough salt in the salad.”
And we women, your objects, silently following what you tell us to do. You consider yourselves men, you call yourselves “burra“, you walk around with your chests out, you smoke cigarettes as if you were successful businessmen, you raise your voices at us in the presence of guests to feel powerful, to feel like something, but without us, your wives, your objects, you would be nothing. Me, stupid, expecting you to be able to be truly different. But instead, look at you now, making a decision like that, deciding even for me and our little one without even consulting me. Not even trying to think that things in a marriage should be decided by both.

You finish talking, and I don’t even know what you said. The sound of a teaspoon hitting the rim of the tea glass brings my mind back to reality. It’s your father who has finished his tea, and he wants me to notice. He looks me in the eye, puts the spoon back into the glass and his face turns impatient, because he had to point it out to me and I, the good wife I should be, should have noticed it by myself. Her behaviour is the cherry on the cake. My body burns with rage. I get up as fast as I can and try to provide him with a fairly sorry face. I hurry to grab the glass and head to the kitchen to fill it with tea, and as I leave the room behind I pray that I never see your father, your brothers, or this damn house again. That I don’t have to serve tea to anyone. At that moment, as I take refuge in the kitchen, I realize that is exactly what will happen. Now that you have decided to take me to Italy, it will be just the three of us. There will no longer be your parents and your brothers. It’s like jumping from hell to heaven in a second. My body returns to its normal temperature, as if I’ve let myself fall backwards onto a soft bed covered with snow. I can feel the smoke leaving my body.

The way you announced it didn’t allow me to consider the most important fact. Which is that we won’t be living here any more, in this house of dirtbags and people with no respect. Me, with three years spent at the University of Prishtina studying literature, with the highest grade average in the class, me reading Kadare and Frasheri, ended up out of love being told by your mother how to clean a garden and becoming your father’s slave. On my second day of marriage, I was reminded of Dad’s words. He was the only one who told me that I would have to finish my last three exams before I got married, that once I was married I would never get my degree. I didn’t listen to him. I wanted you so bad that I put college on the back burner. And a few days before I became yours, I heard him talking to Mom in the kitchen. He told her that I would not fit in anyone’s house, that I was too independent to be anyone’s woman, that I was different from my sisters. I didn’t understand his words until I moved to you, when I woke up and realized that my future would consist of serving the inhabitants of this house and staying silent. I had decided to study to avoid this, and then I ended up in it anyway.

I return to the living room happy, ready to serve all the teas your father and brothers want to drink. It has a whole different effect now. Now that I am aware that they will be the last. We will go to Italy and be away from all this. We’ll be able to have our own life. To love each other for real, without having to hide. Have our own intimacy. I’ll be able to raise the baby without hearing everyone’s comments every time. Who knows what a beautiful place Italy must be. Maybe women are more respected, maybe people can love each other without having to hide. Surely there are better schools and there will be no war. Our son will be able to study and who knows what he will become. A doctor, maybe a lawyer or maybe a professor, who knows. Maybe I’ll be able to start studying again, maybe I’ll finish the last exams I have left and get my degree in Italy. That would be great.

I serve tea to your father and look him straight in the eye.
Enjoy these, because they are the last from the hands of the daughter-in-law you don’t deserve,” I want to tell him, but I can’t. I’m an object in here, and I keep acting like one. I go back to sitting in the chair. Now I feel good. I look for your eyes and finally find them. I realize that you’re feeling better now, too. Maybe you didn’t tell me because you knew I would say no. You were right, damn it. You were right not to tell me, you were right to decide for us. How much I love you. And I can’t wait to love you even more when we’ll be there. We’ll go to Italy and be happy. Happy for real.

Gezim Qadraku

Click here to read the second part

Do not ask for help

I’m six years old, and I’m in first grade.
It’s spring, almost summer now.
After school, Mom takes me to the park to play with my classmates.
I’m happy, it’s sunny and the days all seem good to me. The school will be over in a while, too, finally.
At the park we have fun on the swings, we run after the ball, and then we finish playing hide and seek. At a certain hour, however, we all have to go home, mothers are inflexible.

Daddy’s home, he just got home from work. He’s had a shower, he smells good. He’s tired, but I don’t notice it. I’m a child, I can’t see it. Mom always tells me to ask him if he’s tired. He always says no, that he’s not tired and caresses my forehead with smiling. I don’t understand why I have to ask him if he says no. I will understand it later when I’ll grow up, when I’ll try to work too, and I’ll feel tired as soon as I walk through the door. I will realize how much having someone who cares if you are tired or not, that that simple question, can drive away all the tiredness.

I took a shower, and then I sit on the couch next to Daddy. He’s got a book in his hand and his face looks confused. He’s studying for his driver’s license. I like the book. It has a lot of colourful pictures that catch my attention. Daddy’s asking me for help. He asks me what the word “roadway” means. It’s the first time I’ve heard that word. I’m six years old, I’m in the first grade, my vocabulary’s restricted. I find that word very difficult. I can’t help Dad, and I’m sorry. Then he goes and asks our neighbour. She tells him that a roadway is a road, but he doesn’t seem happy with the explanation.

I try to understand what that word means, and in the meantime, I wonder why Dad doesn’t know why he asked me for help? Why did he have to go and ask the neighbour? What about mom? Why doesn’t mom know what the roadway means either?
I’m six years old, I’m in first grade, and that word shows me that mom and dad don’t really know the language of the country we are living. I should have figured that out sooner, I guess. We speak a different language at home than people use on TV. Mom and Dad only use Italian when we’re out. Why can I speak both of them? Maybe I have superpowers.

I will spend that period of my childhood thinking that I am a superhero. That I can speak both the language of my parents and the language of my teachers, my classmates and people on television.
Dad will get his license the first time.
Growing up, I’m going to realize that for some things I can’t ask my mom and dad for help with. There are things about life in Italy they can’t help me with. I should ask my classmates or my teachers for help, but I’d be ashamed to do it because I don’t want to show myself to be different or inferior. Then I’ll end up never asking for help, for any obstacle I have to overcome. Linguistic, physical or psychological.

It will be the others who will ask me for help, who will trust my support, my knowledge. Not me, never.
I like to say that I am a guy who prefers to listen, that makes me uncomfortable asking someone for help.
To be honest, I really have no idea how it works, what needs to be done and whether it’s really worth it.
I haven’t learned how to do it yet, to ask for help.

Gezim Qadraku

23 years old

I’m 23 years old.
Some of my peers have already married and had a child. Most of the others share their lives with another person and are just waiting for the right moment to take the vital step. I, on the other hand, am alone. I who at family dinners always have to be asked the same question by relatives, “so are you seeing someone?”

I’m not even afflicted by a strange disease that prevents me from having relationships.
I am twenty-three years old, and I spend my life reading, preparing exams and trying to understand what I want to do when I grow up. Yes, I know I should already know what to do once I’ve finished my studies, in reality, I do nothing but change my mind every day that passes. So I use the line from the movie The Big Kahuna as an excuse:
Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what to do with your life, the most interesting people I know at 22 didn’t know what to do with their life, the most interesting 40-year-olds I know still don’t.

I’m one of those who, once finished the studies, would leave with a backpack to travel the world. This could be a great job, going around the world at random. Without a goal. Go explain it to parents and relatives that your dream is not to have a house, get married, have children, have a quiet life. If you just try to bring it up, you’re labelled as the strange, crazy one, the one who doesn’t know what to do with his life, the unripe one, the one who doesn’t want to work, the one who studies so much that he becomes a fool.

I’m twenty-three years old, and for now, I’ve only done a few casual jobs, to try to have some kind of independence and not become a burden for my parents. Comfortable with money, it doesn’t bring happiness but makes everyday life less burdensome. Despite this, the idea of doing the same thing five days a week for years makes me nauseous and afraid.

I am twenty-three years old, and certainties frighten me, although perhaps I would also like to have some assurance.
I am twenty-three years old, and I take refuge in novels, with the hope of finding, between the lines of Dostoevsky or Bukowski, an idea of what I can become when I grow up.
I’m twenty-three years old, and in the evening I willingly stay home and watch an episode of the television series of the moment. My idols are Heisenberg (Bryan Cranston in breaking bad) and Rustin Spencer (Matthew McConaughey in True Detective). By dint of watching TV series, my prototype woman has become Meredith Grey (starring in Grey’s Anatomy). My only interest right now is the start of the second season of Better Call Saul.

I’m twenty-three years old, and I’ve discovered that alcohol, taken in acceptable doses, can become a great life companion.
I’m twenty-three years old, I’ve known love, and I carry my wounds on my heart. We meet different people every day. Some mornings we wake up in a bed that is not our own wondering where the hell we are. Then we turn our heads and connect that this was yet another late evening ended in a bed of a stranger until a few hours before. We all had one true love, and although we do everything we can, we will find it hard to forget it.
I’m twenty-three years old, and I screwed up diets and the mirror, I realized that if there is someone who wants me, he will have to be content with who I am.

I’m twenty-three years old, and I was lucky enough to grow up with very little technology, I realize how sad the adolescence of future generations is.
Ten-year-old children wander around me with their heads already fixed on the screen and their brains wholly lost.
I’m twenty-three years old, and I’m part of the middle generation, the ones who used technology first and now try to use it sparingly. I laugh in the face of my parents’ inability to use apps, and I cry when I watch children fiddling around on the computer better than I do.

I’m twenty-three years old, a lot has changed since high school; with some old friends we don’t say greet anymore, some friends stayed, some decided to move, to go to another country. So I stop and think, my parents’ words come back to my mind…
“enjoy life, because every moment is unique and never comes back.”
I think back to all the moments I spent with my friend, who now lives thousands of miles away from me. I wonder if I enjoyed them enough if I could have seen him more often when he lived across the road if it was worth keeping his face for some nonsense he had done.
I get lost in these thoughts. Then I come to the conclusion that if I can’t wait to hear or see him, then despite those miles, friendship is still there and maybe it will be there forever. Despite the distance, despite the daily problems, despite all the friendship remains and this allows me to sleep quite calmly.

I am twenty-three years old. I don’t follow any model, I don’t want to look like anyone. I would like to leave home as soon as possible, to become independent, to do something with my life, but I don’t know what.
I’m twenty-three years old, I don’t have bright ideas, but I’m one of those with whom a simple beer at the bar on a mid-week evening can be much more interesting than you can imagine.

I’m 23 years old, and I have no desire to grow up.

Gezim Qadraku

This article was written in 2016.

Those summers in Kosovo

Returning to Kosovo every summer meant being able to finally breathe the air of freedom. After nine months of inflexible hours, school, homework, tests and questions, I always had at least a month of pure fun. I spent most of my time in the village where my father was born and raised. There, togethere with my cousin and other boys, I am sure I reached the peak of happiness.

We were a group of six or seven children. I was the youngest. We spent our afternoons playing in the endless meadows of the countryside. They’d take the cows out to pasture, and one always had the ball with him. We’d go and challenge the other children in the village. I used to play football in Italy, I trained twice a week and did everything according to the rules. But there, among them, I looked like a fish out of water. I thought I was playing another game. They were better, faster, stronger. Growing up, I always wondered where they’d get to if somebody gave them a chance.

Those afternoons were beautiful. We didn’t just play football, we stole the cobs and ate them together. We’d divide up our duties. Three went to take the cobs. Two were the field workers, while one was outside to check if the owner arrived. The other three or four stood at the base, which was nothing but the shadow of an oak tree. Down there we prepared the wood and the fire. We grilled the cobs. By looking at our faces, it was like someone had opened us the doors of a starred restaurant. Those weren’t just cobs. It was the organization of a theft, the anxiety of waiting, the adrenaline of those who had to carry out the plan and then the happiness of being able to enjoy them together.

I felt good in their midst, even though I was totally different. I had everything: original shoes, beautiful, clean and ironed clothes. A simple life in Italy and the possibility to think of a rosy future. They had nothing, but I didn’t know that.
How I cried every time I had to go back to Italy. I wanted to stay with them, and I would have given everything just to stay in Kosovo.
They never told me anything, but who knows how they envied me. And I was so stupid to barter my wealthy life for their nothing.

I liked everything about them. Even when they got dirty playing, I had the feeling that their dirt was more beautiful than mine, more original. Even the mud or dust looked good on them. How many times I think back to those moments listening to the beautiful notes of “Il ragazzo della via Gluck“. I get emotionally touched every time.

The memory of the best food I’ve ever eaten is also linked to those moments. No, I’m not talking about grilled cobs.
When we went out to play, our mothers knew we’d be late, and at some point, we’d be hungry. So Mom would always make me a sandwich with sliced tomatoes and a generous amount of salt. A simple sandwich, actually, quite a thin one if I think about it.
It was the end of the world, believe me. When the tomato juice wet the bread, and there was salt in that piece, a mixture came to life that made me literally fly.
God, what happiness.

Mom used to yell at me when I went out too often to play with my friends. She used an expression that can’t be translated into English, Sokak. The word refers to the narrow streets that separate houses in a village or town. But it is the way it is used and all the meaning it is given to create a world of its own. Mom always told me not to stay in Sokak all day. It was like, to try to say it in English, a sort of reminder not to spend the whole day walking around the village wasting time.

She wanted me to study to do my homework, but all I cared about was playing football with my friends. They protected me from that world of unwritten rules, pride and courage. Something far away from the concept of fun that there was in Italy when I played after school in the park with my classmates.

They were all wearing old, ugly, dirty clothes and I wanted them. I dreamed of being like them, but instead, I had much more beautiful stuff. I was ashamed of myself.
One day I realized where they were buying those bad things I liked so much. I also saw that they were really cheap, and I began to understand something of their reality. I was at the market with my parents, which in Albanian we call pazar, from bazaar. You should spend a day in this place, you would understand so much about our people. The manners of the salesmen, the kindness and willingness to give you credit for one, two or three weeks. The atmosphere, the smells and the sounds. Try to ask to buy a single pepper and receive all the crate that will contain at least thirty.

“Oh no, they’re too many. I only need one.”
“But ma’am, you don’t want to buy a single pepper, do you? Come on, one euro and take it all.”

And you can’t say no. And it’s nice that way.

Now it happens, when I come back, less and less, unfortunately, to meet those boys again. They’ve grown, they’ve become men. They’ve started a family, a home and their lives have taken an acceptable path. But it’s as if nothing has changed when they see me. We meet in the most unthinkable places, even if for me every time it is as if someone catapults us on the meadows of our beloved countryside. We talk, discuss the present and how things have changed. They are even kinder than before, and I feel uncomfortable every time. I wonder why I deserved such a blessed life, and they didn’t.

I meet Amir, and I’m reminded of what his reality was like as a child. He lived about 50 yards away from my cousin. We were separated by a hill that people used to take out the garbage. Behind the trash was Amir and his family. One afternoon we went to his place. I don’t remember why. They didn’t have a house, they lived in a shack. The roof was open, and the place was tiny. I don’t remember how many members there were in total, also because every day I discovered a new brother or sister. You should see it now Amir and his two-floor house built with who knows how many sacrifices. He takes me in there proudly and introduces me to his wife Jetmira, who is pregnant.

It’s a boy,” he tells me excited. There are a lot of photos in the living room. The biggest one is of his father, who left too soon. I’m in one also. That’s us in the group, all together in front of my cousin’s house. I get touched, can barely keep my tears inside. I didn’t expect that picture. It’s an avalanche of emotion that’s hard to handle.

We drink coffee, eat some dessert, and they’re all trying to hold me back for dinner. I tell Amir that I’m already invited for dinner elsewhere. That’s the only reason that convinces him to give up. I greet Jetmira with a handshake and give Amir a big hug. I leave their nest and head towards my cousin, who is waiting for me for dinner.

While walking, I think about the life I have led in Italy and that of my Italian friends. Sometimes I wonder what happened to our childhood if we did nothing but complain about what we missed. The Play-Station game, the branded shoe, the moped, etc…

I grew up among people who were economically well, who could afford everything a human being needs to live well. Still, I realize that they gave me nothing. They taught me how to choose restaurants, how to eat certain dishes and how to dress on certain occasions.
Poor people have given me so much. I always feel comfortable with them, even if I’ve never been poor. They have suffered, they have something to tell you, you can find life in their eyes. And if fate was not too cruel and they still have the strength to laugh; well, in those smiles, you will understand why life is the best thing that could have happened to you. The poor have taught me and shown me the meaning of the word happiness.

I arrive at the gate, and before entering, I take a look around. A lot of things have changed. The houses are all more beautiful now. The colours of the walls are bright, the road has been paved, an acceptable amount of water flows in the river, and there is no longer any sign of war. Despite all these differences, my mind recreates the images of those summer days. I see myself as a child running out of the courtyard to meet the boys in the group. I savour the taste of those sandwiches and hear our happy voices as we chase the ball. I’m reminded of the words at the end of the movie Stand by Me.

“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anybody?”

I walk into the courtyard and see my cousin on the balcony smiling at me. He tells me dinner’s ready. In my heart, I hope there are bread, tomatoes and salt.

Gezim Qadraku

Residence permit

I remember every detail of that moment. Feelings, smells, clothes I wore, music I was listening to and what was going on in my head. Just like my approach to elementary school. When at the age of five, I had to face the shock of being the only child in class who didn’t have the pencil case.

I’m sitting on the floor of Milan’s police headquarters at via Fatebenefratelli waiting for my turn. No, I haven’t committed any crime. I will leave this country in a few years with an immaculate record. I’m not here because the police brought me here. I came of my own free will. My residence permit expires soon, and I have to renew it. I have to renew it so that I can reside in Italy so that I can study so that I can continue to play football so that I can live and do the same things that my friends do.

I am sitting, tired, and mentally exhausted. I woke up at five this morning, and at six I was out here. The queue was already long, and after an hour, I was only one or two metres ahead. Knowing what was waiting for me, I decided to commit something unacceptable, something I should be ashamed of now. Still, I feel no remorse. I crossed the queue; I made a shield of my appearance as a white-skinned boy, of my blue pants to which I matched a blue shirt and an innocent face to look like an Italian. To look at me, anyone would have thought I was just any Italian student. I grabbed the card with the number 181 and sneaked in. It was 7:00, and a few minutes later, I thought I’d get out of here after lunch. I was too optimistic.

It’s 16:30, and I just texted the girl I’m dating that our date has to be postponed for tomorrow. I’m still waiting for my turn, and from the moment I walked in, I’ve been doing nothing but looking at the people around me. The air stinks. It smells like sweat, like bad food, like exhaustion.

Some children cry, others play to deceive time.
Some mothers breastfeed, others try to put their babies to sleep.
Some fathers lose their patience and others who don’t give any hint of nervousness. There’s the whole world in this immigration office. Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia. We’re all here. Nobody’s missing.

The number 150 has appeared on the screen; my turn is coming up. Thirty or so numbers and this hellhole will be over. There’s nothing left for me to do but think about all the time I’ve spent here since I’ve been in Italy. It’s the first time I’ve been here on my own; it’s the first time since I came of age. Before it was a hell I used to share with my parents. Going to police headquarters meant missing a day of school. It meant going to Milan and then taking the train and the subway. These were all things that I liked, and I feel like an idiot when I think about how much coming to the police headquarters to renew my residence permit was a good day for me.

I always liked Milan. The trains, the subway, the crowds of people, the shops, the kind of life you breathe here. I’ve always wanted to live here. I don’t know yet, but after a few years I will have the chance to study in Milan, and I will finally take away all that desire to enjoy this city in every corner.

There’s a family that attracts my attention. They must be Indian or Pakistani. The family consists of five members: father, mother and three little girls. The father figure has just received what I think is the renewal of the residence permit for himself and everyone else. He does a liberating run towards his women. Their faces, smiles, and the hugs they give themselves are the best representation of the happiness I could give right now if anyone asked me.

I look at them, and instead of empathizing their joy and being happy, I feel strong compassion. I pity them, as I do myself. I would like to get up, join them and tell them to leave. To leave this country and go back to live in theirs. I’m so tired of all this that I’d go back to mine, even now. On foot, if I had to. It was a life spent like that: renewing the residence permit. According to the laws that governments enjoy changing every time, the merry-go-round changes. Sometimes the renewals last longer, sometimes less. They say that after certain years you are entitled to citizenship. Some people have been waiting for it for so long that they forgot the date’s application.

No one forced you to come, some might rightly say. I’d be inclined to agree with a fierce statement like that right now. I’d go back and do anything to stop my father. I’d tell him to stay, not to convince my mother to go after him. I’d try to persuade them to stay in a place where even if you want to work there’s no job. A place where the war will come and who knows if you’ll be lucky to survive or not. Because after hearing the war stories, I think it’s all about luck. But this waiting, this bureaucracy, this constant spotlight reminding you that you’re not like the locals has tired me out. And now, as I stretch my legs and try to relax my muscles, I almost give a shit about all the things a developed country puts at your disposal. I’d like to close my eyes and catapult myself back to where I was born.

As if that wasn’t enough, you grow up in an environment where you always hear locals saying that we are all the same, that we are all in the same boat. Bullshit. I needed a residence permit to go to school, to play with my friends and to register for the football team. No, we’re not all the same. We never will be. That’s the sad, raw truth. But it’s okay.

As I follow that family out of the police station with my eyes, I tell myself I don’t even want to be the same as the locals. I don’t care anymore. Because you get to a certain point where it takes away your strength and you accept it passively. You come in here, you get in line, and you wait for your number. You get your permit renewed, and you go home.

It’s been an hour, and finally, it’s my turn. The guy at the counter is a few years older than me. I give him everything he asks for, and after about ten minutes, he makes me sign a paper with an orange card on it. My new residence permit. It is valid from 2009 until 2014. It’s 2010; a year has already passed. Five years, I’ve never had a residence permit this long. Before I leave, the guy reminds me that the next one will be indeterminate. He expects me to be pleased, to smile and react in who knows what way. I thank him and leave.

I don’t give a shit“, I’d like to say. But it’s not his fault; he had nothing to do with it. It’s nobody’s fault. I wish I could find someone to blame for all this. Who makes some people have to leave their places and spend their lives in places like police headquarters to renew residence permits.

All I can do is get out of this place. I went in there ten hours ago. It was dark; it’s dark again. I’m texting to mom that I’m out, that I’m stopping for something to eat because I’m exhausted. There’s a McDonald’s down the road. I get thrown in. I order a big menu and try to enjoy it with all the calm in the world. After a couple of fries and the first sip of Coke, I can hear my cell phone vibrating. He’s my best friend.

“Football in an hour or so?”
“I can’t, I’m in Milan.”
“What are you doing in Milan at this hour?”
“I was at police headquarters. I just finished.”
“At police headquarters? What the fuck did you do?”
“Nothing, calm down. I had to renew my residence permit.”

I take the first bite of the burger, and I smile. My Italian friends know the police headquarters as the place where you are taken if you have committed a crime. They don’t know that there is an immigration office, a room where foreigners spend their lives renewing their residence permits. The burger’s good, I’ll take another bigger bite. I think in four years I’ll still be here, another time.
It will be the last one, but I don’t know yet.

Gezim Qadraku

The highlighted image was taken by Claudio Furlan.

I wrote a book

“You look much better, you know?
Last time you were destroyed.”
“We met here after my story with Erika was over, right?”
“Yes, exactly. Now that I think about it, it seems like an eternity has passed.
What have you been doing all this time?”
“I wrote a book.”
“Excuse me?”
“You got it right.”
“My God, that’s wonderful. And what it is about?”
“About her.
About me.
About us.
How my life could have been with her by my side.”

Gezim Qadraku

 

Happiness

While watching the mixture of colours that painted the sky, I reminded of the passage of a book I had read some time ago. I didn’t exactly remember the words the author had used, but he described the magic of being happy and being able to see it.
It rarely happens if you think about it.
Unhappiness or wrong time is more and more outrageous than a good time.
In those moments, I realized that I could never forget that period.
That was one of those days when you prayed that they might last for eternity.
It was still a matter of minutes before people finished their working day and clogged the streets.
It seemed that the little nature still present in the city was enjoying its last breath, before witnessing the usual race of human beings.
It was still winter according to the calendar, but the heat of the sun’s rays gave the feeling that spring wanted to start its course earlier.
Everything seemed to be dressed in the indescribable colour of the sky, a pinkish-orange that left you breathless.
There was no doubt that it would have been a perfect sunset.
I went out for a walk after a warm and endless regenerating shower. I used to feel the chills of cold when I went out at that time, especially after washing. But that day was divine. The light spring jacket proved to be the right choice. I walked without a real destination, letting myself be hit by the sun’s rays and trying to enjoy the sounds of what was around me. Children crying, birds chirping, and the breeze caressing my hair.

The best thing to do was to find a view from the top of the city. I wanted to be in the highest possible place to enjoy the goodbye of the sun and the arrival of darkness.
I was delighted at that time, and the funny thing is that there was no specific reason. For years, as I think everyone, I had mistakenly connected happiness to a goal, to a person or always to something.
That was definitely the happiest period of my life, even though I was far from all that was most dear to me. Yet I didn’t care about anything or anyone anymore. For the first time, I liked the person I was looking at in the mirror.
It was inexplicable happiness that no one could have understood. I didn’t waste time trying to share it. I remembered Oscar Wilde’s words, he wrote that when he liked someone, he didn’t reveal her/his name out because of jealousy.
I did the same with that part of my life, I didn’t show it to anyone and tried to enjoy it until the last drop.
I remember one detail of those moments, I always looked up.
I stared at the sky and tried to touch the stars.
I was happy, and everything seemed to be possible.

Gezim Qadraku

 

Direction nowhere

First days of May, but looking at people’s clothing it seems like late autumn. You can still see scarves and woolen hats.
Today is an odious day. Unceasing rain and biting wind. The classic to spend in the living room under the blankets, eating until you can’t eat any more while watching some useless program on television.

Instead, I am in this small village in southern Germany. I arrived a couple of minutes ago and the next train is in an exact hour. I have a tour of circumspection and I realize that the station is equipped only with a library and a bar. That’s all.

I enter the bar and order an espresso. The waiter asks me if I want to drink it “at the window“. That would be the series of tables arranged with a view to the outside, the parking of the station, or in a more secluded area at the bottom of the room.

I opt for “the window“. I don’t want to miss such a view. I take my place and observe the combination of colors of the chairs and tables. Light green and brown. I like it. It gives me the idea of a split between new and old. I sip the espresso with some fear, but I am happily surprised. It’s not bad at all. Perhaps low expectations play an important role in the judgment. I take out of my backpack the book I’m reading: “The sympathizer“, the Pulitzer Prize of 2015.

I read in a language that is not my native one and live in a country where another language is spoken. I’ve gone so far as to handle four idioms with enough ease. One never knows how many goals can reach. Between one line and the next, I let myself be distracted by the people who arrive at the station. I look up more and more often and enjoy the spectacle of everyday life. I look at people and try to guess their lives. It’s an exercise I’ve been doing since I was a child.
I created stories in my mind starting from reality because it has never been enough for me. Meanwhile, a young girl, too young, running with a stroller attracts my attention. I always wonder what motivates people to have children while they are in what is undoubtedly the best age. She enters the station and disappears in a blink of an eye.

Meanwhile, a stream of teenagers enter and leave the station like ants. I look at their faces and the way they are dressed. It reminds me of the importance I gave to the appearance when I was their age and the total disinterest I felt in school. As I resume the reading I feel a man behind me ordering something speaking in Italian. He knows the waiter. The two of them exchange a couple of jokes. I like the feeling I get when I understand someone who speaks a language other than the local one and this does not have the faintest idea that there is an unknown person around who can understand it. It gives me a feeling of power and control.

I have always needed to keep everything under control. Especially when I’m in a public place I don’t know. I keep reading while I keep my headphones, but all I really do is check the situation around me. I hear a gentleman asking the waiter where the sugar is. I have it. The cashier I assume points towards me and I hear the man moving to my direction. He touches my shoulder and, almost embarrassed, asks me if he can take the sugar. I pretend to fall from the pear tree and play the part. I am one step ahead, I have always been one step ahead. Nothing catches me unprepared. It is impossible to surprise me, I always know what happens, especially if they are people I know. People have become so predictable today that there is nothing interesting about establishing relationships. You only need to go around every social profile to have an almost perfect knowledge of an individual. And then they’re all so interested and focused on themselves. No one observes or tries to understand who is around them. They are impressed when you tell them the smallest details after a short conversation and they don’t understand how you were able to understand them so clearly. It’s so easy for me, a kind of hobby I’d say.

I keep reading, along with pauses to observe people outside.
I like it. For a moment I think I could live in the stations. That wouldn’t be a bad idea since all I need to do to work is my laptop and a Wi-Fi connection. I check the clock and I realize that forty minutes have passed. In twenty minutes I have the train. In ten minutes I get off the table.

I close the book and start to think about my next destination. A town in the south-east of Germany, on the border with Austria. A new reality, new people to know and stories to tell, at least I hope. I don’t know what I could call this period of my life.
As I get up, the words of Ghemon in the song “Voci nella testa” come to mind.
A rhyme says: “direction I don’t know well“.
I modify it, I could call this precise moment of my existence “direction nowhere“.
I don’t know where I’m going, but that’s okay.

Gezim Qadraku.